Microsoft experiment adds 'Handheld Mode' gaming UI to Windows 11 for Steam Deck-like devices

What you need to know

  • A leaked Microsoft hackathon project has revealed that the company has experimented with adding a dedicated Handheld Gaming Mode to Windows 11.
  • The project acknowledges Windows 11's existing weaknesses when it comes to navigating the OS on small handheld gaming devices like the Steam Deck.
  • The effort would deliver a game launcher UI similar to the Nintendo Switch or Steam Deck.

As more handheld gaming devices ship with Windows 11 pre-installed, it's no wonder that Microsoft has been experimenting with ways to improve the OS experience for these specific device types. The form factor was first popularized by the Steam Deck, a Linux-powered mobile gaming handheld that just so happens also to run Windows if the user wishes.

But Windows 11 is not the most intuitive OS to navigate on devices with small screens and controller buttons, and Microsoft is well aware of this. Now, thanks to a leak from @_h0x0d_ on Twitter, we know that Microsoft has experimented with solutions to this problem via a Hackathon project that took place in September last year.

The Windows Handheld Mode would bring a dedicated interface to devices like the Steam Deck. (Image credit: @_h0x0d_ on Twitter)

The leak reveals a project called "Windows Handheld Mode." It details a new gaming shell interface that would replace the usual Windows 11 desktop interface on handheld gaming devices, designed to make launching games and navigating Windows easier with gaming controls. 

The Microsoft Hackathon is an internal event where employees and teams come together to experiment with different ideas they usually wouldn't be working on. As such, most Hackathon projects aren't guaranteed to ship, but that's not to say they never turn into real products eventually.

Curiously, this Hackathon project features a handful of concept designs for the next version of Windows. It includes the same search bar and system tray along the top and a dock-like app launcher along the bottom:

It's remarkably interesting to see how Microsoft is experimenting with a solution for improving handheld gaming on Windows. For now, it remains a hackathon project, but hopefully, this one turns into a real feature that ships on top of the next version of Windows.

It's a form factor that more and more OEMs are dabbling with. Just recently, ASUS announced the ROG Ally, a Windows-11-powered Steam Deck competitor. Devices like this would benefit significantly from a Windows Handheld Mode feature.

Zac Bowden
Senior Editor

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter and Threads